Penn Researchers Help Unearth Forgotten Egyptian Pharaoh

Working in the ancient Egyptian city of Abydos over the winter break, a team of Penn archaeologists knew they had found something special. After excavating a series of chambers constructed of mud-brick—usually a sign of a common person’s tomb—they encountered a stone slab, and finally, a burial chamber lined with limestone.

“Coming down from the top of that chamber, we could see that there were these beautiful images painted on the walls—scenes and texts,” says Josef Wegner, associate professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations in the School of Arts & Sciences and associate curator in the Penn Museum’s Egyptian Section, who has worked in Abydos since he was a graduate student at Penn in the 1990s. “There was a moment when we removed a little bit of sand and we suddenly saw the name of a king. We were like, ‘Holy smokes, what is going on here?’”

The pharaoh, named Senebkay, was previously unknown to historians. Based on clues that Wegner and his team have pieced together, the king ruled over a forgotten Abydos dynasty around 1650 B.C.E. Their discovery, together with an ancient cataloging of Egyptian rulers called the Turin King List, suggests that Senebkay was the first or second of a series of approximately 20 as-yet-undiscovered pharaohs that ruled over a small kingdom.

“The standard picture was that dynasties from the north and south were divided and at war with one another off and on,” Wegner says. “Now we know there is in fact a third kingdom—the Abydos dynasty—which is in between the two, so the political picture of this period becomes much more interesting.”

Over the course of a few days of digging, the archaeologists also realized a connection between the newly uncovered tomb and an adjacent, 60-ton sarcophagus that they uncovered last summer, which belonged to a different king named Sobekhotep.

One of the most revealing finds was a chest made of cedar wood that contained Senebkay’s organs, which was excavated primarily by Kevin Cahail, a Ph.D. candidate in Egyptology at Penn. The box had been gilded, but ancient tomb robbers had removed the gold, uncovering an inscription of a king’s name. But the name was Sobekhotep’s, not Senebkay’s. Wegner and Cahail soon realized that objects from Sobekhotep’s tomb had been repurposed to bury Senebkay.

Penn graduate students, including Cahail and master’s students Matt Olson and Paul Verhelst, played key roles on the excavating team. It was Olson’s first time at the site, Verhelst’s second, and Cahail’s fifth; previous excavations form the basis of his dissertation project on non-royal funerary commemoration at South Abydos.

Cahail says his last trip to Egypt was the most unforgettable.

“All of the tombs we’ve excavated, all have been robbed, but all have bits and pieces and shadows of what treasures they contained,” he says. “But in this tomb, to be there as the sand was removed and the decoration and the paintings come into view, and to be one of the first people to read the royal cartouche and inscriptions that had been lost to history—that was absolutely amazing. This is not something that happens every day.”

By Katherine Unger Baillie
Photos Courtesy of Penn Museum